Hands doused with nerve agent, radioactive tea, a poison dart hidden in an umbrella.
The alleged killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s Istanbul consulate — if found to be true — is only the latest in a series of blatant assassinations carried out by a nation state on foreign soil.
A source familiar with the investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance said the Turkish authorities have evidence showing he was killed inside the consulate. Riyadh has so-far firmly denied any involvement in the journalist’s disappearance and claims he left the consulate unharmed.
But while the Saudis have faced some fallout for the apparent disappearing, if not outright murdering, of one of their citizens in a foreign country — some investors and media figures have pulled out of deals and conferences in the Kingdom — the wealth and power of the regime is such that even if Khashoggi’s assassination is confirmed, repercussions will likely be short lived.
US President Donald Trump appeared to spell this out Thursday, telling reporters at the White House “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.”
“They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country,” Trump said. “This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge Khashoggi is not a United States citizen, is that right? He’s a permanent resident, okay, as to whether we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, that would not be acceptable to me.”
While some US lawmakers have been more stringent in their criticism of the Saudi regime and crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), journalist Glenn Greenwald predicted “things will all go back to normal within 3-6 months. MBS will spin some tale about how rogue elements did this, they’ll punish a scapegoat, and then the spigots will flow again. He’ll be back in DC and Silicon Valley in no time, and they’ll be back in Riyadh.”
Others pointed to US support for Saudi’s invasion and bombing of Yemen, where Riyadh has been implicated in war crimes and was accused of using US weapons to hit school buses, though the Saudis have denied this. Critics have asked if Washington was not upset by thousands of deaths in Yemen to take significant action, why should it care about one killing in Turkey?
Nor does recent history suggest that state killings — whether carried out by US allies or opponents, or Washington itself — ever result in significant or long-term repercussions for the government ordering them.
Kim Jong Nam
The exiled brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the 45-year-old Kim Jong Nam was transiting through Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017 when two women approached him from behind and rubbed his face with VX nerve agent, a substance so deadly the United Nations classifies it as a weapon of mass destruction.
Sweating profusely and clutching his head, he stumbled into a nearby clinic to seek medical help, but died soon after on the way to the hospital.
Kim’s killing was quickly pinned on Pyongyang by authorities in Malaysia, South Korea and the US, only the latest in a series of alleged killings and covert operations carried out by North Korea over the years.
The US responded to the assassination by passing new sanctions against North Korea, and re-designating Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terror. North Korea has strenuously denied involvement in Kim’s death.
Within months, however, Trump was arranging to meet with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, and there has since been a historic thaw in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As distasteful as it was to some observers — and however often it was pointed out in bad faith by critics of the peace process — rapprochement and the chance of ending war in Korea was simply more important than the death of one man.
Sergei Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko
If Kim Jong Un faced few repercussions for allegedly ordering the death of his brother, the apparent assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK earlier this year has resulted in far more fallout.
The unsuccessful murder of Skripal has poisoned UK-Russian relations to a level not seen in decades, while the US hit Moscow with new economic sanctions and multiple countries expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with London.
But diplomatic ties always wax and wane, and the far more dramatic assassination of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 did not cause permanent damage. Russia has denied any involvement in the Skripal poisoning as well as the Litvinenko case.
Despite initial outrage and a fraying of ties over Litvinenko, both the US and UK sought rapprochement with Moscow within years. In 2009, then US President Barack Obama sought a “reset” with Russia, and London was ramping up economic engagement with Moscow ahead of Skripal’s poisoning.
Both the Ukraine crisis and the ongoing conflict in Syria — where US and UK proxies are fighting the Russian-backed regime — have had a far more lasting effect on bilateral relations between the various powers than the killing of a Russian dissident, and it’s hard to see that the unsuccessful assassination of Skripal will not also become a side note in future.
The most shocking thing about the alleged assassinations of Kim Jong Nam and Alexander Litvinenko and the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi is the location of where each of these events happened — all three were in a major foreign metropolis, where even a dissident could expect some degree of security from state agents.
This resulted in widespread media attention and repercussions that might not have resulted if they were killed elsewhere: consider Russian dissident Boris Nemtsov — gunned down on a bridge in Moscow, sparking Kremlin denials of involvement — or the dozens executed in North Korea and Saudi Arabia every year.
Nor are the hands of the US and its allies clean in this regard. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US has carried out “targeted killings” worldwide via drone strikes, including in countries where it is not officially at war, the legality of which under both domestic and international law is dubious at best. Washington justifies these killings as legitimate actions of self-defense.
In 2011, a US drone strike in Pakistan killed the 16-year-old son of US citizen turned Al Qaeda recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was himself killed in another attack two weeks earlier according to the US government. Last year, Al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter was killed in a joint American-UAE raid in Yemen, according to the family, though the US has contested this account.
During the early 2010s, numerous Iranian nuclear scientists were killed in mysterious explosions which Tehran linked to Israel and the US. Both Jerusalem and Washington have denied any connection with the bombings. However, according to Ronen Bergman, author of “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” assassinations have long been a weapon in Mossad’s arsenal.
While the Khashoggi case has gripped headlines — and the ramifications are still unfolding — its ultimate effect may be more muted, and is unlikely to do anything to stem the tide of state sanctioned killings all over the world.